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Newsman Donald Woods Still Seeks Justice for Stephen Biko in the Film Cry Freedom

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Cut to a comfortable home in a white neighborhood of East London, South Africa, where journalist Donald Woods lives with his wife and five children. It’s some days after a barrage of menacing phone calls and gunshots through a window one night. Two of the kids, Mary, 5, and Duncan, 10, are pulling on T-shirts from a package they’ve found delivered to the front door. The T-shirts bear the image of their father’s friend, slain South African black leader Stephen Biko, and the kids and their parents assume they’ve been sent by Biko’s family or friends. Suddenly Mary is ripping her shirt off and crying in pain. “My eyes!” she screams. Burn-like rashes instantly appear on her face and Duncan’s hand. “Call Doctor Goldswain!” Woods yells. “Quick!”

The scene from director Richard (Gandhi) Attenborough’s new $22 million film, Cry Freedom, is true, says Donald Woods, now 53, from whose books (Biko and Asking for Trouble) the film was made. He insisted upon it. For while the chemical-saturated T-shirts left no lasting scars on Woods’s children, they permanently marked the journalist himself. They induced him, finally, late in 1977, to flee his country for England. There he had published his passionate book about Stephen Biko’s life, his arrest, his mysterious death in a South African jail—and about his own frustrating attempt to publicize Biko’s fate.

Yet there was another reason why Woods insisted that Cry Freedom stick tenaciously to the facts. “We knew,” says the journalist, “that the minute this movie opened, the full might of the South African government would try to discredit it. To be able to defend it we had to be satisfied that it was true.”

So far the South African government has not challenged any of the facts in the movie, although it did issue a statement charging Attenborough with “implacable hostility” to the country. The only brickbats have been hurled by critics who object to the movie’s dwelling more on Woods’s family than on the horrors perpetrated against blacks. (One called the film, “The Brady Bunch Flees Apartheid.”)

Naturally, Attenborough and Woods disagree. “I didn’t set out to tell just a black story,” says the director. “I set out to tell the story of a friendship between two men. One was black and one was white, and the black man dies. But the story doesn’t die with him. It’s about how Steve Biko’s story becomes known to the world through Donald.” Adds Woods: “What attracted Attenborough was the idea of seeing mostly through white eyes. The target audience is Europe and the U.S. In the film we [white people] are the ones who have to be educated about apartheid.”

Donald Woods’s education began in the thick of native South Africa. His father, a successful trader, had settled in the Transkei Territory, and Donald’s childhood playmates lived in mud huts and wore loincloths. Still, the white power structure obtained. “When playing games, I’d be the sheriff and the black kids would be the crooks.” At 6, Donald was shipped off to boarding school; he later studied law at the University of Cape Town. He didn’t question apartheid, but “grew up accepting it.” Bored with the law, he started writing articles on political subjects for the Daily Dispatch in East London. In 1965 he became the Dispatch’s editor.

Ten years later Woods, a liberal who gave lip service to the idea of black liberation, met Steve Biko, then 28, who summoned him to a meeting. Earlier, Woods had castigated Biko in editorials as a “reverse racist.” Now, talking with Biko in a small shed for several hours, Woods was mesmerized by the tall, articulate black man. At the end of the visit Biko invited Woods to return and bring his family. It wasn’t a typical outing for the Woodses, who normally spent their leisure hours at the whites-only golf club or in their backyard pool.

Slowly, Biko began to educate Donald Woods, and their friendship developed. Then, on Aug. 18, 1977, Biko, who had been banned from speaking in public, was arrested on his way home from a meeting in Cape Town. Three weeks later he died in police custody. The police first claimed that Biko had died on a hunger strike. But Woods, who saw his friend’s battered body at the morgue, believed otherwise. He wrote angry editorials calling for an inquest. On Oct. 19, 1977, Woods himself was put under a ban preventing him from writing or being interviewed. Nevertheless he wrote in secret a book about Biko’s life. Then came the harassment, the poisoned T-shirts and his decision to leave the country.

For the last ten years the Woodses have been living in England, where Donald has lectured and written six books. Both he and Wendy, 46, were constant presences on the Cry Freedom set, though Donald admits to ruining one scene. As the cameras rolled, actor Kevin Kline, as Woods, was telling actress Penelope Wilton, playing Wendy, that they would have to leave South Africa. Angry that the decision has been made without her, Wilton rages at her screen husband, “Do you think you can change the world with one book?” At just that moment the real Donald Woods interjected from the sidelines, “If you can get a film made of it, maybe you can.”